Using TV Shows to Teach English

Using authentic material in the classroom has never been alien to me, but it was only when I was doing my postgraduate qualifications did the idea of using TV series completely hit home. Since then, it’s been a staple and I recommend them for trainees on both the CertTESOL and DipTESOL. Sometimes there’s a reaction of shock, sometimes of doubt, but once they’ve been tried, generally there’s no going back.

How often do you use TV series in the classroom?

There’s such a wide range of series available, old, new, British, American and with a huge range of applications. TV shows are popular across cultures and across ages, are readily available in your existing knowledge and other resources like ‘YouTube’. The only limit is your imagination.

Why should you use TV shows in the classroom? Or more specifically, why are you not using them?

The upsides

An authentic source: TV series (or sit-coms) provide a focus on real life contexts and situations. It’s self-explanatory, the ‘sit’ in sitcom is ‘situation’. It’s essentially universal. Learners can and will relate to the contexts and situations and that results in more engagement, which as we know, can lead to better opportunities for actual learning.

Authentic contexts provide authentic language of different varieties and registers. These are important things that learners will be exposed to and need to be aware of in the real world. TV shows introduce the idea that there’s not just one way of using language. This is something coursebooks in general don’t do, although there are some that are beginning to contrast British and American English. That’s not to say that coursebooks aren’t a useful resource, but they can’t cover everything considering their global markets.

Level appropriate: many TV shows, whichever one(s) you choose are appropriate for all levels of learner. Oh yes … A lot of communication happens with gestures and expressions. Being very visual, video and particularly the sitcom helps learners grasp at least the concept and likely the meaning of the language.

The visual element can help scaffold listening tasks, and face to face communication is probably the most frequent encounter with language that your learners are going to have. The stereotypical listening task doesn’t tend to consider this. Tom Garside reinforces this in his book, TESOL, a Gateway Guide ‘watching as a receptive skill’, p.132.

TV series reflect real life and are full of unspoken and visual elements that support communication and suitable for learners at all levels. We could use the same clip from a TV show for elementary and upper intermediate learners, but we need to think about what we are going to do with it. Elementary learners can quite easily follow a clip from the video alone, upper intermediate learners might benefit more from focus on the intonation (or perhaps for the Dip TESOL trainee or more experienced teacher, non-verbal backchanneling) with the support of the visual elements.

Recyclable: TV series can be used over and again in the same lesson or in different lessons. As I mentioned earlier, they provide focus on real life contexts and situations. Any one TV show in any one episode or over different episodes provides a range of contexts/situations. As an engaging and on point stimulus for an effective context setting, TV shows have it. Have a look at any one episode of your favourite series and see how many contexts/situations you can find.

So, we can use the show for context setting. What else might we use the same clip for?

The same clip might be used for listening tasks, gist and/or detail. For listening for gist, we might ask learners to predict what’s being said for example and then summarise what they’ve heard before listening again. There’s a whole range of listening tasks we could include and even integrating listening with other skills, for example writing; have the learners make notes as they’re listening.

We might also use the clip for vocabulary and grammar work. At its simplest level, learners could be asked to identify language in a particular clip e.g. grammar structures, functional language. This might be a focus on form and function, for example, recognising forms, recognising and distinguishing functions, matching form and function …There’s so much that can be done.

Recycling can also help long term retention and by recycling we’re focused on maintaining a context avoiding decontextualising, which can easily happen, something which we’ve all done.

It’s not all plain sailing with TV shows though despite the overwhelming case for more use in the classroom.

The downsides

Beware of the choices you make as there can be components that might be inadvertently controversial or to which individuals or groups might be sensitive to. Common sense will prevail on the whole in deciding the appropriacy of a TV show, clip or episode.

However, we can all get a little excited over what we have chosen and make the wrong choice. I did it recently … and it really was one of those ‘oh no moments’, but fortunately was relatively minor, the clip wasn’t as inclusive as I might have wanted it to be. Perhaps the most shocking example of inappropriacy I came across was a ‘teacher’ who genuinely thought it appropriate to include an older sitcom, ‘Mind Your Language’, even too inappropriate to provide a link here. Used simply because the context was language lessons! As well as common sense, some like to be guided by the PARSNIP topics to avoid, politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (e.g. communism, atheism) and pork, which Scott Thornbury mentions under ‘T is for Taboo’, in ‘An A-Z of ELT’.

Be careful!

Underestimating the ability of your learners can deny them of valuable opportunities for engagement and learning. Learners are very often able to grasp authentic language particularly so if it’s supported or scaffolded with visuals. Underestimating learners is a common reason for discounting the authentic in favour of ‘playing it safe’ with the all too often bland and highly contrived offerings that are also available on ‘YouTube’. Or, video is discounted completely, such a shame when we think about the benefits we’ve covered so far.

‘Too much of a good thing …’, can have a negative effect. It’s always good to include TV shows and recycle them but be objective in your evaluation of when and how you’re going to use it/them. It might not be a good idea to have the same video clip for setting context and every task for any one lesson, although it might be argued this would be scaffolding. We need to take other things into account though … maintaining engagement, differentiation …

Be prepared for the risk of a learner coming up with, ‘we’ve done this’… ‘we know this’ or even a colleague asking ‘haven’t they done that before?’. As Jim Scrivener (2011: 205-208) says, it’s unlikely that anything will be ‘fully explored and used, even as the student reaches advanced levels’, but we still need to be alert to the risk of possible reduction in engagement.

Give it a go, use a TV series or two. You might want to start with using them to set context. Watch out for the next instalment, planning a lesson around a TV show.


Garside, 2017, TESOL, a Gateway Guide for Teachers of English. BookBaby

Scrivener, J, 2011, Learning Teaching. MacMillan

Thornbury, S, An A-Z of ELT, MacMillan

About the Author

Sean Martin

Over the last 10 years Sean has worked in a variety of TESOL settings in Hong Kong, from teaching academic English to secondary and tertiary learners. He has also taught professional adults of various nationalities to develop their English skills across a range of commercial sectors including law, aviation, hospitality and leisure. In addition to his work at EfA as a Trinity CertTESOL tutor and delivering CPD workshops, Sean works with the University of Sunderland on their English for Academic Purposes programme. He has academic interests in sociolinguistics and its application in the classroom.

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